My name is Kevin Donell Vance. In June, I will have been in the United States Air Force for eight years. I hold the rank of Staff Sergeant. I am currently married with two children, ages four and two. I was born on 3 September 1976 and am currently 25 years old.
I entered into the USAF eleven days after graduating from high school. I went to open general basic training. I was not sure which career path to take until I was asked to try out to be a tactical air control party [TACP] from a TACP recruiter. I was one of the few who tried out and was chosen. I went to technical school in Florida for fourteen weeks. My first assignment was at Ft. Polk in Louisiana supporting the 2nd Armored Calvary Regiment [ACR] for three years. I then transferred to support the Joint Readiness Training Center [JRTC] for a year. Next, I was assigned to Camp Casey in Korea for one year. Afterwards, I tried out for and was selected for my present job. I have been with my current unit for two and a half years. I have had basic training, TACP training, Ranger School, Basic Airborne School, Air Assault School, HALO School, and Pathfinder School.
At around 0115z on 4 March 2002, I was told that a military member was on the ground in a hostile area in Afghanistan after falling out of a helicopter. My team was told that another team was attempting to go in and get him, but if they were not successful, my team would go in. We were waiting to find out if we would go in to try to get to our lost military member. My team was in a helicopter in route and our estimated time of arrival was 0150z. My team consisted of ten people plus three special tactics squadron members [STS] and we were with eight crewmembers, a total of twenty-one personnel.
At 0140z I had noticed we were flying in circles around the mountaintop because I had noticed the same terrain twice. As we were circling about the third time, we were hit with a rocket-propelled grenade [RPG] around 0145z.There were sparks on the right side of the aircraft and we started to shake violently. Then our helicopter just fell out of the sky about 15 feet to the ground. After the first RPG hit us to when the helicopter hit the ground, I do not remember specifics of what happened, it was a blur. No one, to my knowledge, was injured from the initial crash.
Before I could get off the aircraft, another RPG hit the aircraft where the right door gunner was. There was only one military member between the right door gunner and myself. I am not positive how many times our helicopter was shot but I think altogether, four RPGs were shot at us. I was snap linked into the helicopter, a precaution so we do not fall out of the helicopter. First I was trying to get my snap link/safety line off but the pararescueman [PJ] behind me was pushing me so it pulled tight. I had a little bit of trouble getting it off; it slowed me down about 15 seconds. I then ran off the back of the aircraft.
By the time I was able to get off of the aircraft, three of our team members were already dead. One team member was on the ramp with a hole in his head. There was no mistaking that he was dead. The second team member was at the end of the ramp face down in the snow. His position was such that if there had been life left in him, he would have moved his head out of the snow. I later found out that he had been shot under the arm though his chest and out his above right nipple. The last deceased team member was lying on his back at the end of the ramp not moving. These three deceased members survived the initial crash without injury, but had died from enemy fire. Their names were Marc Anderson, Brad Crose, and Matt Commons.
I knew we had three killed in action [KIA], which left seven of our team, three of which were injured. I had shrapnel in the arm, but did not notice it until later. My platoon leader had shrapnel in his leg, it was a pretty good chunk, and another team member had shrapnel in his lower left calf and was moving slow. Our team knew how to fight and how to operate on the ground. The aircrew did not have the same training.
I exited the aircraft and threw my rucksack off but kept it within 20 meters from me. I figured out which way we were being engaged from and I sought cover behind a cut out in the rock face. It was just big enough for four team members to kneel behind it. We set up a perimeter. Two other members were back to my right and three members to my left. I was closest to the enemy. There were two enemies about 50 meters north of us near a tree. There was one enemy behind me and to the right already dead. There were some more enemies to the south coming out. Then we started to engage the enemy. I was shooting an M4. At first, my priority was to keep engaging the enemy to hold them back and then to seek assistance for close air support [CAS] on the radio. My radio, a PRC 117F, was still in my rucksack. There was a combat controller [CCT] with us named Gabe Brown who was behind me a bit. I turned around and yelled at him to work on getting communications running, he already was working on it. I decided that I needed to be on the line fighting, if I had been on the radio, then the combat controller would have been sitting there doing nothing because he doesn’t have the assault training. I decided that he should call in the CAS as I directed him. I told him my rucksack had a radio in it. A member of the crew dragged my rucksack to the CCT so he had my radio.
First, we shot M203 rounds at bunker. A M203 is a grenade launcher that fits on a M4/16. As the squad leader and team leader shot M203s, I stood up and provided covering fire. When he would stand up to fire a grenade at the bunker, I would standup and shoot at the bunker to cover him. I did the same when the crewmembers would run for more ammo. We tried throwing fragment grenades at the enemy but it they were too far away and the bunker was on the backside of the hill. The enemy threw fragment grenades at us but they landed 5-10 feet in front of me, buried in the snow and blew up.
I believe one of the helicopter pilots was dead and the other was injured severely. The other pilot opened the door to the aircraft and fell out of the aircraft face first. He lay there in the snow securing his area. There was no power to the aircraft without which we could not operate the mini-guns. One of the team members yelled at a member of the crew to get the power working so we could use those guns. The mini-guns shoot 7.62 ammo and so does our M240. The crew was taking ammo and giving it to our M240 gunner. When the crewmembers would run back to the aircraft for more ammo, I would standup and shoot at the bunker to cover them. They were also taking M203 rounds and magazines off of the KIA and bringing it to us. The crew pulled off insulation from the aircraft to wrap the casualties in to keep them warm.
Then four of us (myself, the platoon leader, squad leader, and team leader) started to assault the tree area where the enemy was coming from while the M240 gunner suppressed it. The CPT Self, the platoon leader [PL], was in charge. Once we realized that it was a bunker, a couple of enemy came out from behind a tree and took shots at us. We were moving slow because the snow was up to our knees and we were going uphill. The platoon leader finally said let’s back up and rethink this. We backed up because we could not afford to lose any more guys.
The combat controller yelled that we have F-15s on station. The Platoon Leader was next to me and we discussed it. Then F-15s were overhead and the combat controller was directing them to the enemy according to my instructions. I told the combat controller to have the F-15s to strafe the bunker and have them come in from our right to our left. The CCT repeated what I said. He was smart enough that I did not have to tell him too much detail of what to say on the radio. We used the position of the helicopter to give clock directions. He had basic knowledge of CAS so I could tell him to have the fighters do gun runs on an area from which direction and he would get on the radio and make it happen. The first F-15 pass was really close and I was uncomfortable because I could not tell if the guns were pointing at my team or the enemy bunker so I told the CCT to abort it. I told him to have them come in more from behind us, so I could tell they were not pointing at us. I told him to clear them and the rounds hit right by the bunker. I told him to have them do that over and over again. I think the gun runs were made by both F-15s and F-16s. For the first 10-15 minutes, the CCT thought I was the team leader. He yelled to me ‘team leader’ when the team leader was sitting next to him.
At this point, the team member who was injured in the leg and could not move easily was facing one way. Sgt Walker and I were pulling security on the bunker. CPT Self and I tried to determine where would be a good landing zone.
The fighters did some more gun runs and the enemy was still jumping up shooting at us. The enemy was moving on us from behind us (we didn’t know this at the time) but the majority of enemy were firing at us were on the hill near the bunker area. We killed seven of them. The last time I saw anyone move in the bunker, I was scanning the hilltop and I saw the upper half of an enemy behind some bushes. I shot three times, got down and stood back up. This was the last I had seen him. I never went over towards that bunker so I cannot confirm if I had killed him.
Then we shot some more bombs in the bunker area. I told CCT to direct them to shoot down the backside of the hill north of us. I thought it was better to have them shoot downhill with the first one so we could walk him in to the target. The first bomb hit the backside of the hill and then I told him to bring it up and hit the tree over the bunker. The second one hit the tree dead on and split it in half. The fire from the bunker area ceased. We could not see over the hill and did not know what was over there. CCT said we have some 500-pound bombs to use. After discussing with the PL, I said let’s drop them on the backside of the hill and walk them up. They were dropping them about 75 to 100 meters away from us. Some of the pilots did not want to drop them without the commander’s initials because they were afraid they would kill us.
At that point we were not taking any more fire from the top of the hill so the platoon leader wanted to wait until our reinforcements linked up with us before we tried moving on the top of the hill.
By this time, the second helicopter landed at the bottom of the hill to our northeast and reinforcements were moving towards us. The second aircraft had ten team members on it. They moved uphill to us. This was about two and a half hours after we had crashed. On the way, they were taking some mortar fire. At one point they had bracketed us with the mortars but then they started shooting mortars down the hill to try and hit the second team members as they were coming up the hill to reinforce us. I do not know where the enemies were shooting the mortars from. Later, I learned they were being shot from a position about 300 meters from us on the backside of the hill. Finally, our reinforcements linked up with us. Sgt Walker took a couple of rounds in his helmet. When the reinforcements arrived, Sgt Walker came forward and told SSG Wilmoth which direction the enemy was located. Sgt Walker’s helmet had holes in the top of the head and the side of the head.
A 500-pound bomb hit just over the backside of the hilltop. It hit at an angle where it blew everything back over the top of us so it was raining debris and metal pieces down around us. That was the only point where we were really concerned with our safety from the friendly bombs. This was the last time we used the 500-pound bombs. Together we started to take the top of the hill.
Once we took the top of the hill we found two more friendly bodies. They included the member who fell out of the helicopter that we were there to find and a member from the team before us that tried to go in to get him. We were sent in because they were not successful. Both members had been shot and killed. We had thirty-three members on the hill (including two deceased we found), sixteen were fighting, and three of those sixteen were wounded. The other half was working on casualties or were casualties themselves. As we took the top of the hill, we started taking fire from behind us. We had to turn around and fight the other way. Meanwhile, all of our casualties were lying out in the open down the hill. Once taking fire from the other direction, we had to go downhill to get our casualties. The casualties were the first three team members out of the aircraft and the pilot. A PJ, SrA Jason D. Cunningham, and another team member were killed from gunfire as they were going down to get the casualties. Jason Cunningham was injured seriously but did not die immediately. At this point, I was still on the top of the hill sitting next to the CCT and the PL while talking on the radio. I was reporting back to higher and CCT was talking to the aircraft. We were the command and control [C2] section. I could have taken the radio back from CCT and said that it is my job to call in CAS, but he had been working with them already and understood the landmarks he was talking about. If I had to do it, then it would have been a relearning process so I continued to monitor him and let him call in CAS. The medics kept the PJ alive for about 10 hours (about an hour and half before we got exfiltrated). I reported it to the Controller when he died.
They also dropped 1000 pounders that landed 150 meters away from us. That was a little close and I made sure the CCT had them push those out a bit. It hit the nearside of the hill instead of the far side and shook the team members up. No one was injured. When the bomb hit, some debris on fire flew up into the air about 75 feet over our heads and continued on into the valley where it caught something on fire in the valley.
After being on the ground for about three hours, we had to move the bodies up the mountain before we could be exfiltrated. This would have taken about one half hour. Controller asked me if the pick-up zone [PZ] was cold and how many guys we were going to lose if we waited to be exfiltrated. I asked the medic ‘if we hang out here, how many guys are going to die?" The medic said at least two, maybe three. I reported to Controller ‘it is a cold PZ and we are going to lose three if we wait. Just as I said it was a cold PZ, we were shot at. However, we could have made it cold by the time they got the helicopters in there. It was just every once and while the enemy would take pop shots at us. If we had CAS on station dropping bombs, we could have gotten out of there at that time. I told CCT to drop bombs down in the valley and on the small hill every now and again. Every time the plane showed up and you could hear them, we weren’t being shot at. Just having the planes nearby kept the enemy away. Continuously dropping bombs discouraged them from coming after us. So every now and again, we would drop bombs on them with B52s, B-1s, those were the last aircraft we had. I cannot remember which one. I was watching our medic, he was a part of the second team, as he was working on the PJ. I saw him doing CPR on the PJ and I knew it was bad. I then saw the medic stand up, look over at me, and start walking to me. That is when I got on the radio to Controller and told him that we now have seven KIA.
The whole fifteen and one half hours we were on the ground I was fighting, talking on the radio, or telling CCT what to call in. I shot a total of 420 rounds during the fifteen and one half hours. I was on the C2 line the whole time while watching over CCT’s shoulder to make sure everything was all right. As the hostile fire started slowing down, I barely had to tell CCT what to do, just drop bombs over here or over there.
I kept telling Controller that ‘we lost another one, cold PZ, when are we getting exfiltrated?’ Controller said to hold on. After asking him three times, PL expressed urgency at getting the team out of there. I continued to tell Controller but he just kept telling me to hold on. After the third time, I handed the hand mike to the PL and asked him to tell Controller the same thing.
For the next thirteen hours, there were sporadic firefights from about 300 meters away. All of the close fighting was done because we had neutralized all close enemies. The mountaintop had three different peaks. We held the two highest ones. About 300 meters to our south, southeast was the third hilltop where the enemy was coming up. At one point Controller told me that the enemy was trying to reinforce with seventy guys. I was not clear if he was talking about seventy friendly or enemy. I then asked if the seventy guys coming up this way were not my friends. He said ‘Roger.’ I said I wanted to make sure that was clear. I tried to keep that between the PL and myself because it would have destroyed the other guys’ morale. I think the PL let the team know so they could be ready. We never did see the seventy enemies.
I put the PL on the radio and he was being told the exfiltration sequence of events. I was sitting next to him taking notes. Once the exfiltration plan was sorted out, we sat around and waited until the AC-130 checked in. We had them fly around and occasionally shooting. Controller said we had eight enemies moving in to our south. I never did run into them. CCT was talking to the AC-130 and I was talking to Controller. I gave Controller the approach heading, the land heading and the departure heading. There was a 090 approach heading, 235 land heading, and 270 departure heading. The first aircraft came in on a 090 and then came to a hover. I tried to get him on the radio to tell him to turn around and do a 180. I could not reach him so I called Controller and asked him to get in contact with the second and third helicopters to have them land at 180 degrees from what the first one did. It was important to have the second one land that way in order to upload the KIAs quickly. He was able to reach them and the second and third helicopters landed according to direction. Because the first one landed heading the wrong direction, the exfiltration was slowed down immensely. We had to drag the casualties all the way around the back of the helicopter and load them up. It was important that the second one landed the way it did. My entire unit got on the second helicopter while another unit got off to pull security. They then got on the helicopter and left. If they had landed the way the first one did, it would have taken a lot longer than it did. The entire exfiltration process took too long, about 15 minutes for the first two helicopters. It was all quiet when we were being exfiltrated.
It felt really good when I got back and my buddies said they were sitting around the radio listening. They were impressed that I never got emotional and was calm and professional the whole time. I tried to keep a monotone voice. There were times that I tried to throw some words in there to make Controller realize that we have to get out. It became a personal conversation and we kept saying we have to get out of here.
I received a minor wound to my left shoulder. It is a shrapnel puncture wound. I didn’t notice it until a day later when I woke up and my shoulder felt like someone punched me. I then looked at the T-shirt I was wearing that night and noticed it was blood stained.
I went through so many different emotions, excited, mad, frustrated, sad, any other emotion you could possibly feel, you feel going through this whole thing. And I felt guilty if I felt anything was funny like Sgt Walker’s helmet with the holes in it because we had lost members of our team.
Everyone out there just did his job. I just did my job, everything came natural and my training kicked in. There is nothing I could have changed about that day. Nothing we could have done different or better. I could not ask for a better group of guys to work with. I have trained for eight years to do this and now I had the chance to get to do my job — that is reward enough. Everybody working together and the good Lord is what got us home.
I swear that I have read this statement and it is true and correct to the best of my knowledge. This statement has been subscribed and sworn to before Capt Erin Bree Wirtanen, an officer authorized to administer oaths this 29th day of March 2002 and witnessed by Lt Col Kenneth M. Rozelsky, II.
KEVIN DONELL VANCE,
At Bagram, Afghanistan, I, Erin Bree Wirtanen, the undersigned do hereby certify that on this 29th day of March 2002, before me personally appeared SSgt Kevin Donell Vance, who signed and executed the foregoing document. I do further certify that I am a person in the service of the United States Armed Forces authorized the general powers of a notary public under 10 U.S.C. 1044a of the grade, branch of service and organization stated below and that this certificate is executed in my capacity as a person authorized notary authority under Title 10 U.S.C. 1044a.
ERIN BREE WIRTANEN,
332 AEG/JA Al
Jaber AB, Kuwait
I certify I was witness to SSgt Kevin Donell Vance’s oath of truthfulness and signature on the aforesaid document on the 29th of March 2002.
KENNETH M. ROZELSKY, II,